Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Oremus: Prayer of Entreaty

Guardini continues to guide us through the Mass - focusing now on the prayers of entreaty and the gestures preceding them.  The Collect, the Secret and the Postcommunion all begin with the invitation "Oremus" - Let us pray.  He notes that in all of these prayers we find a kind of clear, terse collectedness and focus.  Their brevity is a mark of the Church's desire for clarity and reverence for the tradition from which these prayers arise.  Though profound and powerful, they are not the subjective prayer of the individual but of the Church before her God. They are precise in their expression - the fruit of deep concentration and seizing upon the essential truths they seek to articulate.  Thus we must take the invitation "Let us pray" seriously - we must move into silent reflection.  The priest must truly pause in order to allow the words that follow to arise with a vitality as they are lifted up to God as vehicles of the intentions of the Church. Therefore we do well to study them beforehand in order these are the intentions of our hearts as well.

The direction the prayers take us is significant.  Guardian writes:  "The goal is the Father; prayer is a seeking of His face. “The Way” is Christ. The power is the Holy Spirit."  This is the law of liturgical prayer.  It is trinitarian - directed to the Father, made "through", "with", and "in" Christ, and in the strength of the Spirit. It is the very principle of Christian existence and forms and shapes our consciousness.  It is the very truth and love in which God himself lives, creates and redeems.  It is to this reality He calls us and in and through which we participate by our prayer. 

IN SINGULAR contrast to the prayer of praise stands the prayer of entreaty, the oratio. We find it chiefly in three places: after the Gloria in the Collects, after the Offertory in the Secret, and after the Communion prayer in the Postcommunion. It also appears in the Canon (in the various requests before and after the Consecration) and at the end of the Our Father. Our concern here is with the prayers which appear in the three places mentioned first: the Collect, the Secret, and the Postcommunion.

That they are important is at once seen from the words and gestures which precede them. The priest kisses the altar, an expression of closest contact with the place of God’s proximity; then he turns to the people and with a grave and formal gesture says: “The Lord be with you.” To this the congregation or server replies: “And with thy spirit.” It is the same words of collectedness and strengthening we met before in the Preface. The Priest says: “Oremus let us pray.” And the Collect follows. The preamble of the Secret is even more solemn. There the priest says first: “Orate, fratres Brethren, pray,” then he continues: “that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father almighty.” The server answers: “May the Lord receive the Sacrifice at thy hands, to the praise and glory of His name, to our own benefit, and to that of all His holy Church.” After this preparation the priest prays over the offerings lying on the altar.

In all these prayers we are struck by one thing: their strict formality. They are terse and austere, the more so the older they are. Here are no elaborate thoughts, no moving images, no emotional outpourings. Nothing but a few clear, terse sentences.
An example is found in the Collect for the first Monday in Lent: “Convert us, O God our salvation, and that the Lenten fast may be of profit to us, instruct our minds with heavenly discipline.” And the Secret from the same Mass: “Sanctify, O Lord, the gifts offered to Thee: and cleanse us from the stains of our sins.” Finally the Postcommunion: “Filled with the gift of Thy salvation, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord, that even as we rejoice in the participation thereof, we may be renewed also by its effect.”
The tone seems at first foreign to us. Our prayers are usually wordier. There is more emotion in them, and they are far more personal. Of course, not all the prayers of the Mass are as austere as these, which have come down to us from a very early period, but their general tenor is more or less the same. The more subjective prayer is always of a later origin and somehow has lost its reserve. The early prayers spring not from the personal experience of the individual, but from the consciousness of the congregation, or, more exactly, of the Church. Often they are very official, in the original sense of the word: the outcome of the officium, duty, the charges of office. Roman clarity and objectivity so dominate them that to us of another stamp and era they often seem cool and impersonal perhaps even unreligious. But in this we should be very much mistaken, for they are packed with a piety both powerful and profound; it is only that their form is different from that to which we are accustomed. They are not really alien to us, as Chinese rites would be; no matter how earnestly we took the latter, they would never touch us personally, never become one with our spirit. The early Christian prayers belong to us; they are a profound part of us. They come from the opposite pole of our existence, and we need them if we are to exist as complete persons. Inclined as we are to lose ourselves in the irrelevant and the all-too-subjective, their clearcut objective piety maintains an important balance.
We cannot grasp the significance of these texts without real effort. They are the fruit of deep concentration. An alert sense of reality has experienced life; an unclouded mind has recognized and seized upon the essential; precise and telling expression has made possible their complete simplicity. The history of the first centuries best reveals the masterly grasp of reality that forms the basis of these prayers; for the young Church had to struggle heroically, first with the voluptuous luxury of a decaying antiquity, then with the mighty forces that came into existence in the chaos of the great migrations and of the dawning Middle Ages. They are not, as we might suppose, complete self-explanatory texts; the situation from which they spring was summed up in the silent prayers that preceded them. We do not take the introductory “Let us pray” seriously enough. The procedure really should be as follows: Folding his hands, the priest says: “Oremus let us pray.” Now there is silence for a good while, during which the individual believer, taking the mystery of the day as his theme, prays for his own intention and for the intention of the congregation. This silent, manifold praying is then gathered up by the priest and expressed in the few sentences of the Collect, so that its brief words are filled with all the vitality that has just silently lifted itself to God. Now its terseness no longer seems inadequate, but rich and recapitulative. By studying the Collects beforehand, we could make them the vehicles of our intentions, as they were meant to be.
These prayers are significant for the direction which prayer takes in them. The catechism defines prayer as a lifting of the heart to God, for God is above us and our way to Him leads upwards. He is also in us; so the way to Him leads through the inner sanctuary. How does this movement take place? Has it some guiding principle or method? All Collects, regardless of content, close with a remarkable sentence: “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who livest and reignest with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end.” Here is the direction we were seeking, the proper relation between the goal, the way, and the power which enables us to take it. The goal is the Father; prayer is a seeking of His face. “The Way” is Christ. The power is the Holy Spirit. This one sentence contains the whole law of liturgical prayer. Its method is the same used by the divine Trinity in the work of our salvation. All things come from and return to the Father. In the Logos, He created the world. When man sinned, Christ was sent into the world to rescue and restore it to the Father. The power by which the eternal Son became man and fulfilled His task was that of the Holy Spirit. In the strength of this same Spirit, sent us by the Father in the Son’s name, we return along the road of Christ home to the Father. We are Christians in Christ. Our new life is life-in-Him. Hence Christian prayer is prayer in Christ.
By this time the attentive reader will have noticed that almost invariably the liturgy unrolls before the Father, to whom all words and acts are addressed. Very rarely, and then only for an obvious reason, does it turn to the Son: for instance in the Gloria, where one of the holy Persons after the other is invoked, or in the Agnus Dei, as the priest’s eyes seem to meet those of the Savior offering Himself for sacrifice. The prayers of later periods are more inclined to address themselves to Christ, but we feel at once that somehow they are out of order. The holy Countenance to which the words of the liturgy are directed is that of the Father; but at every point Christ is the vital “room” in which everything takes place and the Way that is taken. His revelation is the Truth which meets us wherever we look. His living, dying, and rising again is the power that lifts all things into newness. His living reality is the model for, and the manner of, holy existence, the essential to which we should surrender ourselves and in which we should exist. The Holy Spirit is the power by which we are meant to accomplish both the oneness with Christ and the movement toward the Father.
All this is of vital importance. It is the very principle of Christian existence. It is so true and so fundamental that it does not particularly force itself upon the consciousness. We hardly notice it until we turn to the later prayers which some one has, at some time or another, felt called upon to compose, and we suddenly notice how cramped we feel in them. The most important things pass unnoticed. They belong to the a priori of existence and are lived in rather than regarded: air, light, the arrangement of space and time, the ground on which we stand, and the way from our particular point of departure to the goal. We do not notice how essential they are until they are missing. The principle we have been discussing is somewhat analogous, only incomparably greater and holier. It is the working principle of truth and love by which God Himself lives, creates, redeems. It is to this that He summons us; our praying is meant to be fulfilled according to its sacred law.

Romano Guardini
Meditations Before Mass